Photo/IllutrationOkuma town employees are busy at work in their new offices in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on May 7. (Shigetaka Kodama)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture--The town government opened a new office building on May 7 in this coastal town that co-hosts the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, for the first time since the 2011 disaster.

Even though the majority of the town's residents have yet to be allowed to return home and decommissioning work at the plant continues, staff at the new town government building, including Moeko Yamaura, are in high spirits.

“Everyone's so excited and thrilled at the new office here,” said Yamaura, 19, who was an elementary school fifth-grader in Aizu-Wakamatsu in midwest Fukushima Prefecture when the nuclear disaster occurred.

An evacuation order was lifted for two districts here on April 10, eight years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant spewed massive amounts of radioactive substances into the air following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Okuma town's government moved 100 kilometers to Aizu-Wakamatsu following the disaster that ravaged northeastern Tohoku on March 11, 2011, leaving 18,430 people dead or missing.

All of Okuma's residents were forced to evacuate immediately to flee from the radiation escaping from the plant.

Witnessing an influx of children moving into her school from affected areas, Yamaura said she felt “something terrible had happened.”

Seeing how the unprecedented calamity affected people, Yamaura by the time she was in her last year of senior high school said she had a growing desire to "do something for people.”

Her homeroom teacher encouraged her to get involved, saying, “Why don’t you work at the Okuma town government?”

After visiting the temporary Okuma town government office that was set up near her high school, Yamaura decided to commit herself to working at the government.

“People from Okuma have hung in and kept plugging away here, (in Aizu-Wakamatsu) a place so far away from their home,” Yamaura recalls thinking.

“I'm from Aizu-Wakamatsu, but maybe I can also do something.”

Yamaura started working at the town government office in April last year.

In June, she entered the town for the first time, during an in-house training session.

Driving around the town by bus, she got to see the current conditions in Okuma.

Shopping streets were overgrown with spring grass, and in places scenes of devastation were unchanged since the tsunami struck in 2011.

“There were people who actually lived here--I was able to feel such a normal thing,” said Yamaura.

At the new town building, Yamaura is in charge of light vehicle taxes and tobacco taxes.

“I want to hear a lot about what the town was like in the old days from people from Okuma, while participating in festivals and other community events,” she said. “I'll work hard to help create a new Okuma.”

The town government's fresh start in Okuma also raised the hopes of residents who were forced to evacuate.

At 8:30 a.m, Yoshiteru Watanabe, 44, visited the new office to get a certificate reissued that partially exempts medical expenses.

“I hope the new government office will become the first step toward a full-scale reconstruction of the town,” Watanabe said.

Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe called for the government staff to “further improve service for town residents and accelerate the town's reconstruction.”

Since the announcement of the lifting of the evacuation order, residents are now free to return to the Ogawara and Chuyashiki districts in the town's western area as radiation levels have dropped significantly.

About 2.74 billion yen ($24.7 million) was spent to complete the new town government building.

The evacuation order was lifted for about 40 percent of the entire town's areas.

As of the end of March, only about 4 percent of the town's population, 367 residents of 138 households, have registered their residency in Okuma, and not all these residents have actually returned to their homes.

About 100 town government employees, including Mayor Watanabe, out of a total of about 190 staffers, work at the new government office.

Okuma's town government now operates at two locations, at the new building in Okuma, and the temporary facility in Aizu-Wakamatsu. It also oversees the elementary and junior high schools that were set up in 2011 in Aizu-Wakamatsu to accommodate students evacuating from Okuma.

Futaba, which co-hosts the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant with Okuma, remains the only municipality where the evacuation order is still in place for the entire area under its jurisdiction.

(This article was written by Hideyuki Miura and Shintaro Egawa.)